Written by Eric Dumo - Punch, Nigeria
|Okoye attending to a customer|
Parking his car at a corner of the busy road, Oluwaseun Akinyele was soon besieged by a flurry of customers - mostly women - just as soon as he started displaying the different collections at the roof and bonnet of his vehicle. One after the other, the ladies checked out shoes, clothes and bags, turning to one another for advice on which items to settle for from the vast array on display. Before long, the men also joined the party; scanning through available shoes, jackets, shirts and trousers ahead of making a choice. As the minutes ticked away, so also did the number of customers that stopped by Akinyele's 'mobile shop' swell. But even with such impressive patronage, the father of four cannot afford to rent a shop in Lagos capital - Ikeja - where he drives to everyday to service his teeming customers. Displaying goods in his car became his only response to the challenge.
Akinyele displaying his wares in his car
"I can't afford to rent a shop in Ikeja where most of my customers are located," he said. "I tried renting a shop around Allen Avenue sometime back and I was asked to pay N5m for two years. There was nowhere I could get such money from. So, this idea came to my mind. I felt that if I could get a car for around N800, 000 and then get the items I want to sell for about N1million, I could move around the city with the goods and make reasonable sales and profits. Since I started, things have been fair," Akinyele said.
A former bank employee, the young businessman lost his job a few years ago during a massive retrenchment exercise that greeted the industry at the time. With employment opportunities proving hard to come by and five mouths to feed - four children and a wife - Akinyele knew he had to look for a way out.
"I graduated from the university in 1999, I have four kids to cater for and I can't afford to beg or sit without doing anything. I used to work in a bank before a lot of us were laid off. A lot of my friends in the United Kingdom were hawking drugs on the streets but since I cannot do such, I decided to look for a decent means to earn a living here no matter how difficult it could be. That was how I got into using my car as a mobile shop," he said.
Food items are now being sold in the boot of cars.
Akinyele is not the only one who the high cost of renting shops, has forced into using cars as mobile shops in most parts of the country today, he is in fact, among a growing number now embracing the trend.
At the popular Computer Village in Lagos, one of Africa's largest Information and Communications Technology markets, Chinedu Okoye has been selling jewellery and herbal mixtures in his car for about three years now. Like Akinyele, the high tariff of shops has left Okoye using his Mercedes Benz car to display his stocks at a section of the popular ICT hub. But the activities of touts in the area, he says, now threaten his only source of livelihood.
"Before they could allow me to put my vehicle on one of the streets to sell, I had to pay N30, 000. Apart from that, every day, I pay a total of N800 as levy whether I make sales or not. Different groups come at different times of the day to collect this money.
"But recently, some touts came and asked that I remove my vehicle from the place and that they don't want to see me there again. I went to report the matter to the DPO of the station inside the area but he told me to go back to the touts and settle with them. I am still watching the situation before knowing the next step to take. If not for this car, there is no way I could have been displaying my goods at the market. I am really grateful to God for providing me with it," he said.
Eze's mobile shop
Ekene Eze sells trousers, shoes, belts, shirts and wallets not too far from where Okoye parks his car at the Computer Village. His vehicle, a Nissan Space bus, serves as his shop and lets him reach customers in other parts of the metropolis as well. He explained to our correspondent how the idea came to him and what business had been like since he adopted the method.
"I used to own a shop at Oshodi but after I could no longer afford N500, 000 as rent for a year, I had to leave the place. I gathered some money, bought the car and wanted to do transportation business initially but after everything I experienced at the hands of touts on the road, I decided to go into the business I am doing right now. That was how the car became my shop.
"To rent a shop in computer village is very expensive; you must be prepared to have at least N2.5m. I have been here for six years but the only challenge is the constant harassment from area boys who demand N800 from us every day. They don't care if you had sold any item for that day or not. That is the only challenge at the moment otherwise it has been a great experience displaying my goods on my car," he said.
But the trend is not limited to Lagos as businessmen and women in Abuja, the nation's capital and Port Harcourt in Rivers State are now also embracing the trend in the face of rising cost of shops and spaces in major parts of these cities. From clothing to health products, food items to home appliances, the wares on display in many of these 'mobile shops' have no limits.
Female shoes displayed in the boot of a car
Eucharia Charles who drives to Gwagwalada every morning and evening to showcase kitchen utensils and appliances like pots and blenders in the boot of her car, said that with the expensive nature of the city, there was no way she could afford to pay for a shop in the city. She said the profit she makes is barely enough to sustain her family let alone securing an expensive space to do business.
"After the death of my husband two years ago, life became very difficult for me and my two children. I discussed with a friend of mine who was willing to assist me with some money to start a small business. But after doing a survey on the cost of shops in many parts of Abuja, I realised there was no way I could meet up with the rent subsequently even if I paid initially. It then occurred to me that if I could get a small car from the money I was given, I could display and transport my goods in it to different locations in the city. That was how I got into the business.
Though, sometimes, law enforcement officials and even touts harass me to either settle them or move away from where I park my car, it has been a rewarding experience so far," she said.
Renting a shop in busy sections of major cities across the country doesn't come cheap these days - it is almost becoming the exclusive preserve of the high and mighty in the society. At the Computer Village for example, a small shop costs between N1.2m and N2.5m annually depending on size and location. This is outside related charges like agent fees, agreement and utility charges that could further push up the total amount.
In other parts of the metropolis like Surulere, Maryland, Oshodi and Idumota, the price of a shop per annum is not less than N1m. The situation is not too different from what obtains in the three other commercial cities where the cost of shops rises by the day and now runs into several millions, putting it away from the reach of large sections of the populace - many among whom live below the poverty line.
Economist, Theophilus Oladapo, said that if government builds more affordable lock-up shops, create easy access to soft loans at zero or little interest rates, many businessmen and women could have their lives changed for the better rather than resorting to adopting strategies like using their cars as shops as currently witnessed in many parts of the country.
"Part of the ways I think government can tackle some of these problems is for them to embark on the construction of affordable lock-up shops in large scale across the country. Then I think they should also assist new graduates from tertiary institutions with a take-off grant to establish businesses of their choices rather than discarding them immediately after the National Youth Service Corps scheme.
"Soft loans should also be made available for business people to support whatever they are doing. Such loans shouldn't attract too much interest. In the United Kingdom for example, such loans usually do not attract much interest where they do but in Nigeria, interest rate is quite alarming. So, if people have access to funds, it would make things easier for a lot of people in the country today especially those running small scale businesses," he said.
In states and cities where government has managed to build complexes and markets, most of the shops have been priced out of the reach of ordinary citizens like Eze and Charles. For example, many traders who once owned a shop at the popular Tejuosho market in Lagos before it was gutted by fire in 2007 cannot afford to rent a space at the place today since it was rebuilt by the state government. A shop at the ultra-modern market begins from N4m - an amount many of Nigeria's low-income earning citizens cannot afford to put together even in years.
Saint Reuben, a trader in his early 40s, used to own a fully-stocked electronics shop at Tejuosho until a few years ago when fire razed the market. He told earlier in the week how the inability to recover from that loss, raise enough money to rent another shop, has affected his life.
"I had a fully stocked shop at Tejuosho market before fire ravaged the place about four years ago. But today after rebuilding the place, government is selling a shop for between N3.5m and N4m which many of us who used to own shops there cannot afford.
"Each time I pass through Tejuosho and look at what the place is today, realising that people like us can no longer own a shop there, it brings tears to my eyes. Many of my colleagues who could not stand the pains are now in the village, some even died as a result of the shock of losing all their business and not being able to afford a new shop.
"My family and I have been through very tough times since that period. Shortly before that period I lost my mother and on returning to Lagos I lost my entire investment. I am yet to recover from the setback," he lamented.
As a result of the high cost of renting shops in Lagos and other parts of the country, many market complexes like Tejuosho are yet to be fully occupied thus making some of these places looking like ghost yards.
"There is no sense in building ultra-modern markets and then putting it up at very insane prices which many ordinary citizens cannot afford," Oladapo said. "I have visited some of these places and each time I get enraged to see how these facilities that could have been given out to the poor who wouldn't mind paying gradually at a reasonable rate is wasting away because nobody is occupying them. Many of these guys using their cars as shops do so because they cannot afford to rent a shop. But if you give it out to these guys at a reasonable rate, they would surely be adding value to the economy," he said.
But while property owners cash in on demand to hike the prices of renting shops and spaces for doing business in major Nigerian cities, smart men and women like Akinyele and Charles appears to have found a way around the problem. For them, not even constant harassment from touts and law enforcement agents can frustrate their new-found strategy. Their cars are more than just another four wheels on the road.